Major John Pelham -- Arms and the Boy
The Great Cannoneer; Killed at 24,
Was One of the War's Most Glamorous Figures
By Ralph Happel
Seventy-six years ago, March 17, 1863, Major John Pelham, "The great cannoneer," died at Culpeper Courthouse, Va. He doubtless possessed more natural skill at artillery practice than any other gunner on either the Confederate or Federal armies. He had just been wounded about six miles away at a fight where he was technically a spectator. A girl, perhaps the chief cause of his then being in Culpeper County, watched him die. "The gallant Pelham," so named in official reports, would never again come calling to the Shackelford house after he left it this time. He was 24 years old, surely too young to die, Bessie Shackelford must have thought.
A South that had read Smollett and Fielding in the eighteenth century, when great-grandfather Peter Pelham played the church organ at Williamsburg, Va., read and lived the novels of Sir Walter Scott in the opulent nineteenth century. Eli Whitney's invention, the cotton gin, made possible the South's new feudalism, and its flower was John Pelham of Alabama, dead two years when modern times unhorsed the last knight at Appomattox.
He was not soon forgotten, however. John Esten Cooke in "Surry of Eagle's Nest" made him a symbol of all that the fallen South held dear: brave youth, sweet and chivalrous, yet able at the arts of war, a Confederate Galahad.
Neither symbolism nor genius showed in his childhood. Young John at West Point was an average student. His letters were typical of college letters in any age--short notes on school activities and girls and the need of money.
Then came secession. John's reaction was now typical, not of a schoolboy, but of every Southern officer in the North. Whatever the clash of loyalties and anguish of mind, there was only one course. Robert Edward Lee gave up a career and a home. John Pelham relinquished as much in his way. "I had hoped," he wrote to his father, "fondly hoped, to graduate here."
April 22, 1861 he resigned from the academy and made his way to Alabama. Commissioned lieutenant, he was sent to Joseph E. Johnston's Confederate Army in the Valley of Virginia.
From then on, beginning July 21 at First Manassas, he "dazzled the land with deeds."
During November of 1861, J. E. B. Stuart made Pelham a captain and gave him a battery of horse artillery, the nucleus of that famous arm in Stuart's Cavalry Corps. Horse artillery, wherein every man was mounted, achieved a speed, mobility and daring impossible to the heavier field artillery, in which the men rode the limbers.
Pelham brought new audacity to horse artillery tactics. His flair for the skillful use of inadequate guns was only less phenomenal than the sound judgment behind his recklessness. Old heads marvelled.
And there again you have symbolism. Pelham's activities expressed an ecstatic force, akin to the rebel yell.
Through 1862, the seven days around Richmond in the spring, Second Manasas (August 29-30), Sharpsburg (September 17), his fame and ability progressed accumulatively.
Now in November, 1862, no youth of that time or place could have asked for more of fortune. Lee and his paladins, recovered from the Maryland setback, rode in detachments down from the mountains through the tinted woodland of Fredericksburg. King Arthur himself, though spurning the rags of men-at-arms, would have envied their morale. Merlin might have smiled at Stuart, gaily dressed, accompanied by his troubadour, Sweeney, making merry on the banjo while Prussian Heros Von Borcke, lifelong friend of the South and enemy of the English language, praised his hero, Stonewall Jackson, who gave him "heartburn." And with them rode Major John Pelham, whose days were numbered.
A mighty host lay north of Rappahannock River. Ambrose E. Burnside, newly appointed Federal commander, did not know whether to cross to Fredericksburg, at the head of navigation, or to Port Royal, 20 miles downstream. He called for the navy and made a tentative effort at Port Royal.
The attempt, as Stonewall Jackson's subordinate and brother-in-law, D. H. Hill, somewhat uncharitably reported, was not a success:
". . . A dog (in Port Royal) was killed and a Negro wounded; no other living being was injured. Finding that Hardaway's fire did not slacken, the pirates (sic) fled down the river; but now a worse fate awaited them than a distant cannonde; The gallant Major Pelham of General Stuart's Horse Artillery had a section of artillery immediately on the bank of the river, and gave them a parting salute."
So Burnside crossed at Fredericksburg December 11 and 12, 1862.
December 13, on the right in the town and on the left to the southward, the blue masses moved out in magnificent array. John Pelham's Alabama Creoles had their "Napoleon detachment" hitched up ready to go.
At the junction of the Old Mine and Bowling Green Roads, near the present Hamilton's Crossing visitors' contact station of the National Military Park, he opened fire with two guns, pestering the Federal left flank like a couple of gadflies, a half mile in advance of the Confederate line. Section after section of the enemy batteries turned upon him. One of Pelham's guns was disabled; the metal from over a score of enemy pieces sang around the other as Pelham himself helped man it. "Get back from destruction, you infernal, gallant fool, John Pelham," ordered Stuart. The boy had delayed an entire army corps about two hours.
In the course of the day, Pelham occupied four major positions and ultimately directed the fire of some nine Confederate batteries, but that initial peppering of the Federals with two light guns was what the grim "seceshs" of Jackson's line remembered.
Back at headquarters, the battle over, the young knight returned to Captain Phillips, a visiting officer of the Grenadier Guards, the service necktie which the Englishman had asked him to wear during the battle so that it might be preserved as a memento.
It was a relic of Pelham's last great tournament.
Both armies settled down to winter quarters on their respective sides of the river.
Jackson had a new uniform and lived in the hunting lodge on James Corbin's Moss Neck plantation, where Stuart, the donor of the uniform, teased the Presbyterian general about the racing prints on the wall and other evidence of sporting tastes. Von Borcke, more Virginian than the Virginians, went around the countryside drinking everybody's eggnog and making the "foreign" English army observers feel at home.
No one knew that Stuart had only two years of life, that Old Jack would never make another winter encampment this side of Valhalla, that Von Borcke would soon have the sorrowful duty of taking John Pelham to Richmond in a narrow wooden box.
The things known were the trivia of army life. For one thing, Fitz Lee's horses, on the upper Rappahannock, near Culpeper, had hoof and leg disease. February 17, Stuart ordered Von Borcke to take Pelham and another officer to investigate.
In the village of Culpeper Courthouse, they lodged at the Virginia Hotel on Main Street, opposite Judge Shackelford's house. Hardly had the cavalrymen turned engineers and laid plank bridges across the mud to the inviting parlor of the Shackelford ladies than they were ordered back to Fredericksburg.
March 15, Stuart went to Culpeper on court-martial duty, and Pelham, anxious to see the Shackelfords again, accompanied him. Poor Von Borcke was left behind to look after the pickets at the fords just above Fredericksburg.
On March 17, 1863, a holiday of no especial significance to the Dutchman or his Virginia pickets, Von Borcke, riding by the river, heard distant shots upstream.
He heard the Battle of Kelly's Ford. The Federal horse had splashed through the stream and struck Fitz Lee.
Watching the fight were Stuart and Pelham. Temperamentally unable to stay away from an action, they had left near-by Culpeper at the first news. Neither was officially employed, Stuart leaving everything to the capable Fitz.
Perhaps John had intended to call on Miss Bessie Shackelford that bright morning. All, however except the cavalry ("Ain't you--ain't you--happy?") was forgotten as he dashed about on a borrowed horse, Sweeney's horse, the stainless knight riding to his doom on the banjo player's nag.
This was fun, not like Manassas and Fredericksburg and those places, when one had had work to do.
John waved his hat to the Second Virginia. Near by, a Federal light battery unlimbered, the same kind of artillery that he himself was wont to use.
While Heros, downstream, interrogated suspicious countrymen and wondered what the upstream firing presaged, John Pelham lay in the Shackelford house. He had been hit in the head by a shell fragment, and he never regained consciousness. "Pretty little Miss Bessie" and the other girls watched him die. Back through the ford splashed the Yankee horse. It had been a trim little fight. The Federals were steadily improving.
A bridge spans the stream at Kelly's Ford today and the Shackelford house, a business place on Culpeper's Main Street, bears a bronze plaque. "Poor Pelham!" wrote Heros Von Borcke in 1866, "he has been lying these three years in his early grave there in Alabama." And Heros has now been dead in his homeland these many years, he who flew the Confederate flag over his castle until he died and who ever rejoiced "that I drew my sword for the gallant people of the late Confederacy."
March 18, Von Borcke carried Pelham's body to Richmond and made arrangements for its conveyance home. Before being sent on to Jacksonville, Ala., it lay in state in the Confederate Capitol. Thousands came to see the dead hero, "The majority," according to Von Borcke, "being ladies." The deeds of "the dear dead boy," as one of them called him, would never again cause hearts to flutter beneath the crinoline.